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The Song of the Sirens

Ulysses and the Sirens. Herbert James Draper c. 1909. Public Domain.

One of Campbell’s last projects, The Inner Reaches of Outer Space: Metaphor as Myth and as Religion, was developed from a series of lectures delivered in San Francisco. The series included a symposium at the Palace of Fine Arts with astronaut Rusty Schweickart, who flew on Apollo 9 in March of 1969. Schweickart spent over 241 hours in space and performed the first extravehicular activity (EVA) of the Apollo program. During a five-minute pause tethered outside his spacecraft, Schweickart underwent a metaphysical experience as he stared at the Earth, contemplating its place in the universe, while listening to the unfathomable depths of cosmic silence.

I vividly remember when, in these lectures, Campbell compared this moment to the song of the Sirens in the Odyssey. This was somewhat startling to me since I had inherited the mistaken notion that Homer’s Sirens were seductive, erotic mermaids—a misreading of the text widely disseminated by European Art, especially during the 19th century, and as exemplified in the painting Ulysses and the Sirens by Herbert Draper (above).

There is no description of the appearance of the Sirens in Homer, nor is there any trace of sexual enticement. There is however an association with music and death: the Sirens sing a “high, thrilling” song, “lolling there in their meadow, round them heaps of corpses.” Those passing by who hear their “honeyed voices” will be made “wiser” by their omniscience, for the Sirens “know all the pains that Achaeans and Trojans once endured on the spreading plain of Troy,” and indeed, “all that comes to pass on the fertile earth, we know it all!”

Nor do we find an exclusive emphasis on sexuality and temptation in the Platonic commentaries that emerged in the centuries after the poem was composed. Instead, we find something much more akin to Campbell’s implication that Rusty Schweikart had heard the Song of the Sirens while hovering there in the abyss of the universe, looking down on our inconsequential little speck of dust. For Campbell, the Siren song that he heard was that of the infinitude of cosmic silence and the oblivion which is the fate of all creation. It is the same song of space that Campbell often spoke of during his lectures when he evoked the ancient wisdom of an Arctic shaman, who advised us “not to be afraid of the universe.” Rather than representations of the lure of the flesh and the material world, Campbell’s Sirens represent an archaic tradition associating the Sirens with the heavens and the spiritual wisdom of the Musers. These views are rooted in Plato’s Republic: In the famous myth of Er, eight concentric circles revolve around the spindle of Necessity representing the fixed stars and planets, with a Siren standing on top of each ring “singing a single sound, a single note, but from all eight of them there sounded in concord a single harmony” (Music of the Sirens, 23). Elsewhere, in the Cratylus, Socrates speaks of “the Sirens in the underworld, which they are unwilling to leave, so charmed are even they by Pluto’s conversations” (23)—an observation that associates the Sirens with death.

It is true that in Plutarch’s reading the Sirens may represent false and trivial forms of degenerate music, to be countered by the Muses, but he also states that “the music of Homer’s Sirens imparted to departed souls a love of the heavenly world, from which a faint echo reached us on earth that only the more refined soul perceived” (Sirens, 23). Later, near the end of the Roman Empire, Macrobius, in his commentary on Cicero , suggested that “‘Siren’ was Greek for ‘singing to God’” (23). Taking us one step further away from the terrestrial temptations of the material world, Theon of Smyrna and Philo Judaeus equate the Sirens with stars, or planets, “either as blazing bright or as generating music with their motions” (23). This tradition brings us much closer to Campbell’s notion that the Sirens in the Odyssey represent the “allure of the beatitude of paradise” (The Masks of God: Occidental Mythology, 172)—a notion consistent with the Pythagorean view that the Sirens represent the music of spheres calling souls in life and after death to rise above physical world.

It was that song of silence, Campbell was suggesting, that Rusty Schweikart heard while floating along in outer space, a transcendental experience of the metaphysical ground of the universe—of the deep silence between the repetitions of the “mystic syllable AUM” recited during meditation—a silence pregnant with the wisdom that surpasses all understanding, so often communicated during Campbell’s lectures on the subject, when he evoked the “SILENCE before, after, and around AUM,” signifying nothing, “that absolute, unqualified, unconditioned state-that-is-no state of ‘consciousness in itself’” (Masks of God: Creative Mythology, 647). 


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